Wednesday, August 20, 2014

What is a High Concept Pitch and How Do You Write One?

Jill Williamson is a chocolate loving, daydreaming, creator of kingdoms. She writes weird books for teens in lots of weird genres like, fantasy (Blood of Kings trilogy), science fiction (Replication), and dystopian (The Safe Lands trilogy). Find Jill on FacebookTwitterPinterest, or on her author website.

What is high concept?
In Hollywood (for the movies) and in New York (for publishing houses), concept is king. If you can come up with a high concept idea, you increase your chances of success.

What is a high concept? It's an idea that appeals to the masses. It's that book or movie that you hear about and think, "Yes! I want to watch that!" or "Why didn't I think of that?"

Here are some examples:
What if a boy found out he was a demigod?---The Lightning Thief
Fairy tale characters trapped in our world---Once Upon a Time
Revenge through literature---The Revised Life of Ellie Sweet
A lawyer who cannot tell a lie---Liar Liar
What if Peter Pan grew up?---Hook
Horror film in the ocean---Jaws
Dinosaur theme park---Jurassic Park
Fight to the death on national television---The Hunger Games
Love story between two terminal teens---The Fault in Our Stars
The story of those left behind after the rapture happens---Left Behind
A blonde goes to Harvard Law School---Legally Blonde
He’s having the day of his life, over and over again---Groundhog's Day
What if a girl and a vampire fell in love?---Twilight

One thing to keep in mind: once a high concept hits big, it's over. So if you're trying to pitch a vampire/human love story or a fight to the death dystopian novel right now, you won't get very far. Look for a twist that makes it original again. Or look for an entirely new idea. People always say, "There are no new ideas!" Yet brilliant books and movies continue to be made every year. So never give up. You could find the next big thing.

Why Try for a High Concept Idea?
1. It can open a lot of doors. As a new writer… and even as a multi-published writer… having a high concept increases the chances of publication. Anything that appeals to the masses and is easy for an agent or editor to communicate, can open a lot of doors.

2. It helps you find what the story is really about, which will help you stay on track as you write.

3. It helps you communicate your idea. Every new author has those times where they can’t explain their story in a sentence or two. But if the idea sounds so complicated that the listener can't understand, you will probably get rejected. When I first pitched The New Recruit at a conference in 2008, I had memorized my back cover copy. I met an agent and rambled out the paragraph, messed up twice, and she kindly asked me to start over. I don't recommend this strategy! Later at dinner, I sat beside another agent. I didn’t ask to pitch. (I was still recovering from the first attempt!) Finally, she asked me what my story was about. And I said: “It’s for teens. It’s kind of a Christian Agent Cody Banks.” She instantly perked up. Why? Because I locked onto the hint of high concept and made my story premise easy for her to categorize. I said nothing more about the book, and she asked for my first three chapters.

4. It makes marketing easier. Once your story is published, people will still communicate your story, and a high concept makes that simple. Word of mouth is the number one way books sell, so you want to make it easy for readers to tell others about your book.

"Great!" you say. "How do I write a high concept?"
Start with these three tips. A High Concept . . .
1. Is universal. A high concept must resonate with everyone. Either we know what the experience feels like, or it's an experience we've all thought about or could relate to.

2. Is unique or has a fresh twist on a familiar idea. Find something that hasn’t been done before. A good concept should be both unique and universal. If the idea is unique, but no one can relate to it, then it is not a high concept idea. It the idea is universal, but we have seen it again and again and again, it is not a high concept idea.

3. Involves a hero we can relate to who is dealing with a big problem. When you're thinking about the hero and his big problem, consider upping the stakes and adding a time limit. What will happen if your hero fails? Blake Snyder says these stakes must be primal. That means survival, love, life or death, protecting loved ones. The higher the stakes, the better. And if you can add a time limit, a ticking time bomb of sorts, that makes everything more intense.

4. Can be summed up in a few words that give a good picture of the entire story. Make your high concept as short and simple as possible. The goal is to to hook the listener so that he will say, “I’d read that” without any more explanation.

5. Has a great title.

Ways to Come Up with Ideas
-Ask “What if…?” Asking the simple “what if” question can lead to a high concept idea.
What if your plane crashed on a deserted island and you were the only one left alive? (Cast Away).
What if a volcano erupted in the middle of Los Angeles? (Volcano)
What if there was a farm that grew people? (Replication)

-Opposites Attract. Take two character types who would normally never be together and put them together. You could do this with actors, like putting Benedict Cumberbatch in a movie with China Anne McClain. Try it with two character archetypes who don’t usually work together, like a bully and a teacher. Or meld two into one like a coward and a thief. You can do this with authors, books, or movies, as well. Or mix and match them. For example: Romeo and Juliet as written by Douglas Adams, The Doctor goes to Narnia, or Redeeming Love on a mission field. Or take the opposite of a stereotype like in Liar Liar: a lawyer who cannot tell a lie. Or in Hook: Peter Pan has finally grown up.

-Meld the Familiar with the Strange
Take a well-known concept and pair it with something weird. Think Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter or Cowboys & Aliens. High concept movies are simply taking an original idea and putting a twist on it. And as I've said before, Stephen King comes up with ideas by combining two unrelated things. Murder and mayhem + prom=Carrie. A criminal mastermind + fairies=Artemis Fowl. Another way to do this is to add a high concept phrase to your idea or familiar story type. This is the whole Die Hard on a … plane! (Passenger 57) method, which is another way of melding the familiar with the strange. Take a story that the audience understands and tell it in a new way. Ex: The Hunt For Red October … in space! Gone with the Wind … with an alien. Saving Private Ryan … with wizards.

Which leads to… weirdness.

Are These Ideas Too Weird?
Yep. And that’s the point. You are brainstorming. Turn off that critical voice and write down whatever comes to you. The weirder, the better.

Test Your Idea
1. Is your idea universal? Have you found something that all people can relate to?
2. Does your idea have a unique twist? Have you taken something familiar and added something strange?
3. Is your protagonist likeable or relatable? Can we identify with him? Learn from him? Follow him? Root for him?
4. Are the stakes big enough? Are they primal?
5. Can you summarize your concept in a few short words?
6. Does your title capture the spirit of your story?

Do you have a high concept idea? Care to share it in the comments? If you don't have one, don’t give up. Keep brainstorming until something clicks and you think “I’d read that!”

45 comments:

  1. Great post! These are great question to check any idea. Titles are difficult, though...

    arendedewit.blogspot.com

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Yeeahhh... I hate coming up with titles.

      Delete
    2. Who doesn't hate coming up with titles?

      Delete
  2. My title needs some working on. Quite a bit of working on, actually. XD I haven't been able to think of a sentence for my main book.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I'm going to talk about writing a logline next week, Emily. So maybe that will help.

      Delete
  3. This is such a great breakdown, Jill! I've also been using your character worksheet as I try to flesh out some flat characters on my current book.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thank you! I'm glad it's helpful. I just learned something new that I wanted to add to it, but I can't remember what...

      Delete
  4. Wow. What an awesome list of advice, Jill! I totally want to refer to this in the future (haha, don't know if that will actually happen though, as you write so many great articles!).

    So. I would like to know if anyone is up to an e-mail from me, asking if they would read my book (based on a pitch of sorts).

    walking in the air.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Having my email would probably help :P It's hannah941718(at)gmail(dot)com, and I would send the pitch once you emailed me saying something like, "I want to hear about your book!"

      walking in the air.

      Delete
  5. I don't if this counts, but one of my WIP can be summed up like this: a cute romance about a post-apocalyptic mailman.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Interesting, Emma. "Cute" and "post-apocalyptic" are quite the opposites!

      Delete
  6. Here's my (hopefully) high-concept idea:
    What if a fairy was a trained assassin?

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Oh, that sounds cool! (I started to write a fairytale retelling where Little Red Riding Hood was an assassin... It didn't go anywhere, but it was fun to start.)

      Delete
    2. Nice, Cascade! That's very intriguing.

      Delete
  7. I've been stressing out over my novel ever since your session on high concept ideas at the OYAN Summer Workshop. (I don't have one! My story's so cliche, no one will ever want to publish it. Is there even a scrap of originality in this pile of words?) Then when I had my mentoring session with Amanda Luedeke, she helped me pull some of the unique things in it, and that helped a bit. Then the other day, I hit it--my high concept idea.

    The lost prince no one wants back.

    (I'm serious, I threw a little party for myself when I figured it out. Squealing and running around the house and everything.)

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Oooh! Good job, Catsi! I love that. Way to go.

      Delete
  8. Great post!
    I love that, Emma!
    My pitch is "A girly-girl princess in a matriarchy has to step up to be a Strong Symbol For Women when her older sister - the heir to the throne - stops talking." Is it too wordy? Originally it was "A 'proper' princess is born into a warlike matriarchy where women are expected to be warriors.", but then I drafted the book and discovered that the matriarchy works much better when I change around the transfer of property in already established gender roles than when I turn the whole book into a ludicrous gender-flip spoof, added dragons, added a villain, shifted the focus to family relationships...

    Hopefully I'll get to test my pitch at church small groups tonight. (The year always starts with icebreakers. "Say your name, your age, and an interesting fact about yourself." "[My name], [My age], I'm about to start revising my first novel." "What's it about?" "[Pitch].") Of course, there's always the possibility that people will act excited so as not to hurt my feelings.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. The awkward moment when you spend so long rewriting your comment that three have appeared in the mean time... I really like fairy-assassin and lost prince no one wants back pitches, too.

      Delete
    2. LOL, I do that sort of thing all the time. ;)

      The idea sounds really cool! I agree, it's a bit wordy, but I can't really come up with a way to trim it down... Hm. Good luck pitching at youth group! :)

      Delete
    3. How did it go, Miri?

      How about: When her sister, and heir to the throne, stops talking, a girly-girl princess must train as a warrior.

      ??

      I'm going to write about the logline next week, and I'll have my logline notes there the help me help you all brainstorm. (Right now I'm on vacation and away from my notes. But I think for a strong logline, you need...

      -A TYPE OF CHARACTER
      -SOMETHING THAT HAPPENS TO HIM OR HER
      -THE THING THEY MUST DO
      -THE THING THEY ARE TRYING TO STOP OR KEEP FROM HAPPENING

      So you have the first three but not the last one. What is at risk?

      Delete
  9. My WIP is a Christian retelling of "Sleeping Beauty" with mind control, time travel, and elements of high fantasy.

    ReplyDelete
  10. This is weird and I don't know if I'll ever write something like it, but my pitch would be, "What if a boy without a mom and a girl without a dad fell in love and then their parents began dating?" That's something I've always wondered about ever since I saw a book in a library. And I want to add a twist to it. Any good ideas? :)

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Interesting! I'd read that. I can't think of a twist at the moment. I'll keep thinking...

      Delete
  11. Imagine, intelligent sea life in space! Okay, my story in a few words... A young wizard is charged with recovering an ancient book of wizard secrets.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I'm not quite sure if it's a high concept idea.

      Delete
    2. "Intelligent sea life in space" reads like a high concept. It feels heavy on the unique and light on the universal. The first thing I think is... that's impossible. I'm sure you have a way that it is plausible, but that doesn't come through in your statement. Still, it is neat enough that an agent or editor might as you to explain further, and then you could give your logline.

      Now, are these the same stories? Because your high concept and your few words about the story don't seem related. As to the second, it sounds a little cliche. Can you add something to it that shows it as unique?

      Delete
    3. They are separate stories. The second story mentioned is my main WIP, meaning I have several which I only write when I need a break from my main WIP. I'm working to make my WIP unique.

      Delete
    4. "Intelligent sea life in space" was the random sentence that came to mind when I blended "ocean" and "space."

      Delete
  12. How about, "A loyal girl driven to villainy by her heroic twin brother"? It's my next story idea I'll be working on, and I'm still planning that one. The novel I'm doing heavy-duty work on now might be this: "A young thief fights to end a war and get back home." Any feedback on those?
    And all the ideas above sound great!

    ReplyDelete
  13. Hm. My book in a sentence: "A girl finds out the world we live in is not what it seems: an illusion." Sort of work in progress on that but I think it's okay.

    ReplyDelete
  14. This comment has been removed by the author.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. This comment has been removed by the author.

      Delete
  15. an ancient hero reborn with little or no memory of his previous life and a girl with no magic working for a spy agency composed of immortals who believe her to be one of them.

    ReplyDelete
  16. Hi, I have an idea, but I'm not sure if it has already been used. Can you please tell me if it is original or not? and also, is it interesting to you?
    A family was , with a help of a great lie, thrown from the throne , 100 years ago, and now the one of the youngest members of this family, un-teached and young girl is fighting for what really belongs to her-the throne.
    I'm sorry for all the spelling an grammar mistakes ;(

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. You basically have the rightful heir fighting to win back the throne. That in itself has been done lots. What you need to do is seek out how your story is unique. You likely have a way, you just haven't pinpointed it yet. Why does she want to get the throne back? Is someone making her do this? If not, what is her motivation?

      Delete
  17. Thank you so much for this post! I'm writing down the name of it so I can refer to it the next time I need an idea :)

    ReplyDelete
  18. What a fantastic post! I'll definitely use this as a reference for my writing. :)

    ReplyDelete
  19. Thanks for the post! Its a lot of help! I got this spark of idea but I don't know if it makes sense or not:
    A kid who lives in a community where everything is controlled properly, no one even gets to meet others (except for the "Creators" who controls the community). When they are born, they will see the "Creators", but the memory will be erased." The kid has some kind of power to overcome the brainwash of some kind and wants to look for the others.
    I don't know if it is a good idea and just want some comments...
    Thank You!
    BTW I am only 11 years old

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Sounds like a good idea to me! I was actually about your age when I read this post. The idea I was using back then has come a long way.

      Delete

Home